Houman Barekat

Historical Baggage


The Bureau of Past Management, Iris Hanika (trans. Abigail Wender), V&Q Books, 2021, pp.200, £12.99 (paperback)

The Appointment, Katharina Volckmer, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020, pp.112, £9.99 (paperback)

A suitably ungainly word for a hefty undertaking, the German portmanteau Vergangenheitsbewältigung  –  ‘overcoming  the  past’  –  denotes  the  attempt by the German people to collectively come to terms with the events of 1933-45. In the literary and artistic spheres the expression is associated with, among other things, the novels of Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz, nonfiction works like W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, and the visual art of Anselm Kiefer. From Holocaust-themed fictions to commemorative art installations, the business of reckoning and remembrance is such a mainstay of the culture industry in modern Germany that one sometimes wonders, as an outsider looking in, whether fatigue and cynicism might set in.
……..The Berlin-based author Iris Hanika  explored  this  question  in  her 2010 novel, Das Eigentliche (The Essential). Its protagonist, Hans Frambach, works for a fictitious government department called the Vergangenheitsbewirtschaftung or Bureau of Past Management, a state-funded archive with a remit ‘to research historical narratives and cultivate an understanding of the nation’s history’. He harbours a ‘terrible hatred of GERMANY’, which he believes to be ‘intrinsic to the national character’. After many years spent collating testimonies from Second World War atrocities, attending conferences and liaising with state institutions and NGOs, he has grown weary and jaded: ‘it’s no longer the essential work it once was; it’s become the Shoah-Business.’
Das Eigentliche won the EU Prize for Literature in 2010, and has now been published in English under the title The Bureau of Past Management. (Translator Abigail Wender felt, perhaps rightly, that Anglophone readers would find The Essential off-puttingly pretentious.) The novel features a bracingly sardonic snapshot of ‘the Shoah-Business’: an art director enthuses about ‘a former Dutch prisoner who was amazing, better even than Primo Levi’; a woman from a retributive justice organisation, fresh from attending a conference of the International Auschwitz committee, boasts of having met ‘the creme de la creme of survivors… they have all written books’.
Middle-aged and single, Hans enjoys a platonic but oddly codependent relationship with Graziela, a music teacher whose grandfather served in the Second World War. When she begins an affair with a married man called Joachim, the dynamic of their friendship changes: ‘Instead of discussing how their grandparents and nationality had entrenched them in Germany’s terrible history, they analysed, interpreted, and assessed Joachim’s every comment.’ Hans confronts his own profound loneliness in bouts of spiralling self-pity: ‘He looked at himself and saw a mousey grey man’; ‘Maybe nothing remained of him but pieces of equipment piled together. A talking-machine and thinking-machine no longer in sync… a metabolic apparatus, human junk, that’s what he’d become, functionally alive… With no reason to exist.’
What begins as a fairly commonplace story of midlife ennui develops into an intriguing portrait of neurosis. In one particularly striking scene, Hans, who is pathologically obsessed with the Nazi death camps, has a standoff with his PA when she refuses to book him a business class flight because expenses won’t cover it. He explains that the cramped conditions on economy class remind him of ‘people transported by cattle car… Treblinka. Sobibor. These are names with which you must be acquainted. Thereseinstadt. Riga. Cattle cars. I will fly Business Class.’ He has an OCD tick whereby he derives comfort if the number of letters in a word or phrase is divisible by three. Graziela’s name was:

unfortunately eight letters, and eight was not divisible by three, and there was nothing to do about it. The rule of three worked for Graziela only by combining her name with something that was a genuine part of her and that could be divided by three… ‘Gra-zie- la’s Che-eks’ pleased him because it has fifteen letters, his favourite number of letters, and when he divided it by three, he got five. That was orderly, workable, could be no other way… – a won-der-ful thing.

.While attending a church service Hans happens across a theological pamphlet, written in the 1960s, that situates the Holocaust in a lineage of violence dating back to Cain and Abel, tracing ‘a clear path from fratricide to genocide… with many crimes still to follow, and more to follow those, they know not what they do, now and forever, throughout the world, for eternity, amen. Man should not lose faith.’ He is disturbed and affronted by this teleology: if all of this was predestined, where does that leave ethics? It is, of course, a self-serving whitewash – an attempt to co-opt the memory of the Holocaust. Here, as with the work of the Bureau, the solemn vernacular of suffering and healing is portrayed as a shallow and glib charade.
……..Some would contend that the European Union, which derives much of its legitimacy from the idea that its institutions have helped maintain peace in Europe for some seventy-odd years, has similarly exploited the memory of Nazi war crimes for its own ends. There’s a hinterland where the project of ‘overcoming the past’ elides into a different remit – that of safeguarding the future. The belief that ever greater transnational economic integration is the surest bulwark against future conflicts is a central tenet of the embattled but – for now – still broadly hegemonic ideology of Macronism. To the extent that it looks askance at the pieties of liberal orthodoxy, this English translation of Hanika’s novel, which is co-funded by the EU’s Creative Europe programme, is something of a Trojan horse.
Passages in praise of ‘his madam Chancellor’, Angela Merkel, read like a pointed send-up of the liberal centrist fixation with technocratic competence, in which the stolid matriarch serves as a political comfort blanket: ‘She worked hard and thought that effort was crucial’; he ‘wanted to weep – if only he were able – for all the people who took such pains, always trying to do the right thing.’ Hans tries to replicate Merkel’s manner of pressing her fingertips together while seated, but can’t quite pull it off: ‘His fingertips would not meet; more often, his hands bustled around independent of each other, stabbing at air.’ Before going to sleep at night he turns on the radio to listen to the national anthem. Hanika’s protagonist stands in for the body politic: one gets the distinct sense that what’s being ‘managed’ here is not so much ‘the past’ as the fear of the future.
Katharina Volckmer’s provocatively crass debut novel, The Appointment, explores similar themes in an altogether different way. Its unnamed protagonist is a deeply cynical thirtysomething German expat with misanthropic tendencies (when out walking in the park, she derives solace from the thought of people being shat on by pigeons) and anger management issues (she’s just been suspended from her job for threatening a colleague with a stapler). She spends the entirety of this short novel monologuing at her plastic surgeon, Dr Seligman, while he inspects her vagina preliminary to performing a sex change operation. Because Dr Seligman is Jewish, she quips – somewhat tenuously – that her new member will be ‘a Jewish cock’, and that her transition would therefore constitute the ultimate redemption for Nazi crimes.
Volckmer’s irreverent satire makes a subtle and important point about the inherent condescension of tethering people to the suffering of their ancestors. Guilt-ridden Germans, she writes, became:

hysterically non-racist… And yet we never granted [Jewish people] the status of human beings again or let them interfere with our take of the story down to that ugly heap of stones they put up in Berlin to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust… I mean, seriously, who on earth wants to be remembered like that? Who wants to be remembered as the receiving end of violence?


even today… a living Jew is quite an excitement, something that no one prepared us for when we were growing up. We were only used to dead or miserable Jews, staring at us from endless grey photographs, or from somewhere far away in exile, never smiling, and us forever in their debt.

The narrator expounds in rambling fashion on religion and patriarchy (‘all that crap about holy mothers and whores’), loneliness, the human condition, the idea of love as ‘an egoistic pursuit’, sex toys, shame  and intimacy. Ever since early childhood she has seen herself as an irredeemable wrong ’un, akin to ‘a cat that barks’; with her large feet and hands, she has never felt comfortable in her femininity – ‘like there was a secret choreography that everybody had been taught apart from me’. She eschews normal relationships – preferring to suck off strangers in public – and enjoys putting people down: ‘I like to make people feel incompetent, because I never felt like I was good at anything, so why should anyone else?’ She’s unable to take her therapist seriously because he’s called Jason, which is why she’s offloading to Dr Seligman instead.
……..Volckmer’s protagonist is a woman of creepy, compulsive habits and obscure aversions. Her narrative voice is pleasingly obnoxious: ‘once I get to know someone,’ she declares,’ I always want to masturbate in their bath and steal a little souvenir, an object of their everyday, like a teabag’; ‘I always think of fate as some dramatic fat person on a chaise longue, stroking a pathetic pet, waiting for their whims to be humoured.’ Looking back on her recent affair with a married man, she muses: ‘it’s not that K wasn’t a good man, he wasn’t the kind of man who you would imagine fingering a dead chicken, or who would aggressively watch credits at the end of a film.’
In an interview with the Guardian, Volckmer, who was born in Germany but lives in London and writes in English, revealed that she’d struggled to find a German publisher. One editor suggested to her that the novel’s humour would fall flat in her native tongue. This feels persuasive, and not just because its protagonist is constantly and self-consciously referencing her own nationality, whether disparaging German cuisine (‘It was always our weak point, we never created anything that was meant to be enjoyed without a higher purpose’) or riffing on people’s expectations (‘being German in London is mostly about… pretending that you are from Berlin and that you have read Max fucking Sebald’). When she imagines ‘a Lego concentration camp called Freudenstadt – build your own oven, organise your own deportations…’ – the transgressive frisson of the joke feels tailored to a foreign gaze, a winking performance of Teutonic insentience that calls to mind the camp caricature of the 1980s sitcom ’Allo ’Allo!
We learn, among other intriguing biographical details, that the protagonist’s great grandfather was a station master on the penultimate stop on the railway line to Auschwitz. Might this somehow explain her contrary nature? At a time when contemporary fiction is awash with novels in which some deviance or peccadillo is simplistically accounted for by reference to childhood or generational trauma, it’s refreshing to read Volckmer’s narrator blandly acknowledge that ‘sometimes we are the agents of our own sadness’. When she regales her surgeon with sexual fantasies about Hitler, and playfully asks him if he’s ever had the desire to ejaculate onto a photo of Eichmann, she isn’t so much embodying a nation’s psychological wounds as pushing the boundaries for its own sake – a display of impudent bravado in which the Führer serves as a cipher for the ultimate badness.
The strange elevation of Hitler to the status of super-taboo – a profanity to be invoked in much the same way a person with Tourette’s might blurt a ‘fuck’ or a ‘shit’ – implies a profound trivialisation of history. In a similar vein, Hanika’s protagonist laments the way Hollywood renderings of the Holocaust ‘don’t aim for… compassion but to beat the heart black and blue’; ‘the story is no longer about the essential core of what occurred, which would be impossible to portray; instead, it has become the eternal struggle, as people call it, between good and evil.’
Volckmer is doing a bit, of course, and if her narrator’s prattlings read as jejune that is, presumably, intentional. The problem here is that the satirical register feels distinctly outdated – although, like so much kitsch, it is not without a certain eccentric charm. What unites these two novels is their protagonists’ ultimately futile struggles to parse an authentic sense of meaning from all the baggage of a history compressed into clichés and stock types. And there, perhaps, is the nub: in the world of the Holocaust novel – and this includes the self-consciously ambivalent Holocaust novel – you’re only ever doing a bit.

For more on The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer, visit Fitzcarraldo Editions.
For more on
The Bureau of Past Management by Iris Hanika (translated by Abigail Wender), visit V&Q Books.

Houman Barekat is a literary critic based in London. He reviews for various publications including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Spectator.

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